Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 352 pages; 2016.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a crime novel and been completely transfixed from the first page. But that’s what happened when I opened Jane Harper’s The Dry, a book I had not heard anything about and had only stumbled upon by accident when I was looking for Australian reads to download onto my Kindle before heading to Greece for a week.
The book, which is set in the fictional country town of Kiewarra in rural Australia — about 500km north-west of Melbourne — is the first by Harper, a British-born journalist now based in Melbourne (she writes for the tabloid newspaper Herald-Sun), and the story itself could have been lifted from the headlines: a murder-suicide of a man, his wife and young son, found shot dead in a farmhouse. The only survivor — and witness — is a baby.
But the case isn’t clear-cut. Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, the farm, like all others in the area, had been struggling financially. Luke Hadler’s mother doesn’t believe her son was capable of killing himself, nor his loved ones, and suspects that he may have been murdered by a debt collector. The police in Clyde, the nearest big town with a fully staffed cop shop, think otherwise and have closed the case.
Enter Aaron Falk, a federal police officer specialising in white-collar crime, who grew up in the town but left under a cloud when he was 16. Luke was his best friend at high school and the pair kept in touch. When he returns for the funeral, Mrs Hadler asks him to look into the case for her — even if he isn’t “that sort of police officer”.
Working under the radar with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, the pair’s unofficial investigation reveals some disturbing facts that suggest Luke may have not pulled the trigger on his wife and child after all. His own death also looks suspicious. But how to prove it?
Running in tandem with this storyline is a darker one involving Falk’s own past, which fleshes out why he fled town for the city, dragging his father in tow, two decades earlier. Through the clever use of flashbacks Harper does a good job of revealing small nuggets of information that force the reader to constantly reassess their opinion, not just of Falk but of Hadler as well. Are either of them reliable? And just because Falk’s a cop, should we regard him as trustworthy?
A claustrophobic portrait
Harper’s portrayal of small town life played out against a backdrop of ongoing severe drought is an authentic and claustrophobic one. The community, which revolves around the school and the pub, is riven by poverty and personal tensions, and rumour and gossip abound. Anyone who’s lived in a small community will recognise the types of people and behaviours presented here.
The characterisation is richly drawn: the simmering tensions of people at their wit’s end is deftly depicted, and the town’s local “ratbags” — who have grudges to bear and like to solve problems with their fists — never strays into caricature. The people and the unpleasant atmosphere in which they live feels believable.
And for a story that is so fast-paced and tightly plotted, Harper hasn’t skipped on detail: her prose moves along at a clip but she has a keen eye for landscape, atmosphere and little things that matter:
The porch door that used to be yellow was now an insipid shade of blue, he noted with something like indignation. It had pockmarks where the paint was peeling. He could see flashes of yellow underneath, gaping like fatty scars. The wooden steps where he’d sat fiddling with toys and footy cards now sagged with age. Underneath, a beer can nestled in the flaxen grass.
Quite frankly, The Dry, is an astonishing debut. It’s an exceptional crime novel, one of the best I’ve read in years. That I failed to guess the “solution” (I’ve read so many crime books over the years I usually spot them long before the ending) is testament to her skill. Even the denouement, usually the weakest link in a crime novel because, well, the author has to wrap the story up somehow, is deftly handed and quite a surprise. Colour me impressed.
Last year The Dry won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. I can see why.